It’s “What If? Week” at SB Nation. There shouldn’t be many of these moments for a 3-year-old franchise, but we’re here.
Year 1 has its share of memories for the Vegas Golden Knights. There’s one big “What if?” that’s made me wonder for two years: What if the Golden Knights went for it in February 2018 and traded for defenseman Erik Karlsson from the Ottawa Senators?
A lot would’ve happened. Clearly all of this is real and I can predict what would’ve happened and you should believe me.
Why isn’t Erik Karlsson a Vegas Golden Knight?
First, some background leading up to the trade deadline.
By Feb. 26, the Golden Knights were in that weird ‘they’re good but we’re still not sure’ phase. Such aspirations in Year 1 were expected, mind you, as Vegas needed to win because it benefitted so greatly from the expansion draft.
Vegas was 41-16-4. The forward core was excellent; the top line of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith was one of the best. For months, it was asking how were the Golden Knights going to unload David Perron and James Neal? Now, it was how Vegas would put the pieces together for a run at the Stanley Cup.
The Golden Knights had the capital and prospects to make such a move. Vegas would go into the deadline prepared to move on from one of the triplets — Cody Glass, Nick Suzuki or Erik Brannstrom.
The potential marriage between Karlsson and the Golden Knights was real. Vegas checked all the boxes; play for a contender, a chance to win in 2018, and a team to sign a long-term extension with when his contract ran up in 2019. Vegas and Ottawa talked a wide-range of packages. The nucleus was a prospect, a couple of first-round picks and maybe another conditional pick. The kicker: a team willing to take on Bobby Ryan’s contract; Vegas had the money to do that, especially if it could unload one more in a separate deal.
The Golden Knights were ‘98 percent’ close to a deal for Erik Karlsson leading up to the deadline. The two percent was the one player Vegas was reluctant to give up — Glass. The team’s first ever draft pick was deemed untouchable. Ottawa was persistent. Instead, Vegas continued to counter for one of Suzuki or Brannstrom, but the Senators were dead-set on adding a center to its prospect pipeline, a source said at the time.
Leading up to 11 a.m., the final offer from Ottawa: Glass, two firsts and a conditional pick for Karlsson and Ryan (unsure of salary retention). Vegas just didn’t want to move on from Glass. As a result, the Golden Knights zeroed in on Tomas Tatar.
At the end of the day, not getting Karlsson wasn’t the worst thing. Vegas still made the Cup Final and came within three wins of winning the whole thing. But one has to wonder: What if the Golden Knights pulled the trigger?
Key events would’ve changed, life as we know it would be weird, and there would be a parade — or two — down Las Vegas Boulevard right now.
Golden Knights acquire Erik Karlsson
Golden Knights acquire: Erik Karlsson, Bobby Ryan (40 percent salary retained)
Senators acquire: Cody Glass, 2018 first-round pick, 2019 first-round pick, conditional draft pick if Karlsson re-signs with Vegas
Golden Knights trade Luca Sbisa to Carolina
Hurricanes acquire: Luca Sbisa ($3.6 million)
Golden Knights acquire: 2021 fourth-round pick
Golden Knights trade Jon Merrill to Colorado
Avalanche acquire: Jon Merrill ($1.375 million)
Golden Knights acquire: 2022 fifth-round pick
Would this happen? You decide.
The Golden Knights enter the home stretch with this lineup:
Jonathan Marchessault — William Karlsson — Reilly Smith
James Neal — Erik Haula — David Perron
Bobby Ryan — Cody Eakin — Alex Tuch
William Carrier — Pierre-Edouard Bellemare — Tomas Nosek/Ryan Reaves
Brayden McNabb — Nate Schmidt
Erik Karlsson — Shea Theodore
Deryk Engelland — Colin Miller
Scratched: Brad Hunt, Ryan Carpenter, Nosek/Reaves
What goes overlooked is how well-rounded Vegas was; it had the fourth best offense and the eighth best scoring defense.
Karlsson had an underwhelming season with an underperforming Ottawa team, but he finds new life with Vegas. Karlsson goes to the first power play unit with the top line and Tuch; the second unit becomes Ryan - Haula - Perron with Schmidt and Theodore.
The 11th best power play skyrockets to a top-5 clip with Karlsson reaching 70 points; two of the top three point scorers on this team are named Karlsson. What a world.
Ryan deals with injuries, but averages a shade less than 15 minutes a game. He becomes a perfect addition to the third line.
Vegas squeezes out three more wins to finish with 54, giving them 115 points and the second best mark behind the Nashville Predators.
In the playoffs, everything is almost chalk. Vegas sweeps the Los Angeles Kings in the first round, then eliminates the San Jose Sharks in five games. It’s not six games because the aura surrounding Karlsson prevents the referees from overturning Marchessault’s game-winner in Game 2.
Perron’s injuries give way to Tuch’s ascension to the top six, a spot he doesn’t let go of. Tuch plays with Haula and Neal, while Perron establishes a could-be scary third line with Ryan and Eakin.
Vegas dispatches the Winnipeg Jets in five games, but this time celebrates the Western Conference championship at T-Mobile Arena by finishing one point ahead of Winnipeg in the standings. Ryan Reaves scores the winning goal and does the celly of all cellies.
The stage is set; Vegas and Washington in the Cup Final. Erik Karlsson vs. Alex Ovechkin. The expansion team vs. the bridesmaid.
The Final that absolutely happens
The Golden Knights are 12-2 in the playoffs. Marc-Andre Fleury is playing at a Conn Smythe level, but so is Erik Karlsson; his 16 points through 14 games are third on the team behind Marchessault and William Karlsson.
Game 1 is a shootout, one of the few times Vegas has been involved in such a game. Erik Karlsson scoring the first goal of the game, and then sets up Theodore’s cross-ice feed to Nosek for the go-ahead goal in the third. Karlsson finishes with a goal and two assists, as Vegas wins Game 1, 6-4.
In Game 2, Theodore scores a power-play goal late in the second, cutting the Washington lead to 3-2. Late in the third, Theodore dumps the puck from the neutral zone, to which it caroms off the boards to the stick of Ryan. He centers it to Perron, who is all alone in front of an open net. Instead of the immediate one-timer, Perron (moved to the third line in favor of Tuch) toe drags to get Braden Holtby to flinch; he misses an amazing stick save that would be on highlight reels for years to come. Perron roofs it, making it 3-3 with 1:59 to go.
T-Mobile Arena goes wild, no one sits heading to overtime. Vegas draws a hooking call on Tom Wilson two minutes into the extra frame. On the ensuing draw, Marchessault’s initial shot from the left circle goes off iron. William Karlsson secures the puck, passes it to Erik Karlsson, whose slapshot from the point beats Holtby glove side.
Golden Knights win 4-3 and take a 2-0 lead in the most intense 30 minutes of real time this city has ever seen.
Washington gets one back in Game 3, 3-1. Devante Smith-Pelly’s goal late in the third is the backbreaker. Theodore whiffs on a potential outlet pass in the defensive zone, a rough moment for the young defenseman. His partner, Karlsson, consoles him after the game once the media clears from the visiting locker room at Capital One Arena.
The Golden Knights’ forecheck remains a problem for Washington in Game 4. Holtby makes a couple of aggressive saves early. Vegas capitalizes midway through the first. Erik Haula finds Alex Tuch camped in front of a wide-open net after Holtby over-commits to Haula, and Tuch scores to give Vegas a 1-0 lead. Playing with the lead, Fleury settles in and makes key saves on Wilson and Smith-Pelly to preserve the lead after 20 minutes.
Wilson scores on the power play in the second to make it 1-1 after two.
The Golden Knights commit two penalties the entire game. Neal scores at 5:43 of the third to give Vegas a 2-1 lead, and Reilly Smith makes it 3-1 at 12:26. Michal Kempny scores 1:13 later to make it 3-2. The Capitals go on the power play with 2:16 left on a cross-check from McNabb. With 1:09 left, Nicklas Backstrom sets up Brett Connolly with a cross-ice pass, but Fleury stacks the pads and makes the save of the season. William Karlsson scores an empty-netter with 30 seconds left, and the Golden Knights win 4-2 heading back to Vegas.
The Cup is in the building for Game 5; Lil Jon performs at Toshiba Plaza. Imagine Dragons were set to play before the game, but were replaced at the last second by the Killers because of superstition or something.
The Golden Knights take a 3-2 lead after 40 minutes behind a ridiculous goal bonanza. Karlsson scores his team-leading 23rd point of the playoffs with an assist on Smith’s go-ahead tally with 29 seconds left.
Smith-Pelly ties it with 10:08 to go in the third.
Less than three minutes later comes the play of the year.
Deryk Engelland retrieves the puck behind Fleury. The Golden Knights traded Sbisa at the deadline because they were afraid he would rush to play the puck around the boards, in what would have resulted in a turnover and a goal from Lars Eller. With that presence of mind it changed the whole complexion of this season, Engelland waits and finds an open William Carrier in the slot. William Karlsson hops over the boards, retrieves a stretch pass from Carrier and is all alone in the neutral zone. Karlsson walks in on Holtby, goes between the legs to avoid Holtby’s pokecheck and roofs it for a 4-3 Vegas lead. It’s a move Karlsson hasn’t done yet; this wasn’t something he needed to do against, say, the San Jose Sharks in a Pacific Division-clinching game; the division was clinched with three weeks to go in the season.
Karlsson wins the faceoff, Erik Karlsson gathers the puck, and T-Mobile Arena erupts. The Golden Knights race over to Fleury, the goal horn goes off 10 times, Stanley Cup champ hats are dispersed throughout after both teams shake hands. “Vegas Lights” by Panic! At the Disco plays as the fans sing the chorus. Erik Karlsson and Bobby Ryan, who were one win from the Cup Final last year, celebrate with their new team with the thought of doing it again. Fleury wins the Conn Smythe, and the improbable run has its fairy tale ending.
Fresh off the parade on Las Vegas Boulevard, the Golden Knights go back to work with the hopes of a repeat.
- Vegas signs Paul Stastny to a three-year deal at $6.5 million AAV.
- Ryan Reaves is brought back on a two-year, $2.5 million deal ($1.25 million AAV).
- Alex Tuch, Nate Schmidt, Colin Miller and Shea Theodore sign their long-term deals.
Max Pacioretty to the Golden Knights
Golden Knights acquire: Max Pacioretty
Canadiens acquire: Erik Haula, Nick Suzuki, 2019 second-round pick
The Golden Knights have enough cap space to bring back one of their two UFA wings; they re-sign Perron on a four-year, $16 million deal ($4 million AAV). Vegas enters the season a bit under $4 million in cap space.
Vegas also makes one more move prior to the season to add depth to its AHL goaltending:
Golden Knights acquire: Garret Sparks
Toronto Maple Leafs acquire: David Clarkson ($5.25 million), 2020 fourth-round pick
Entering Year 2:
Marchessault — W. Karlsson — Smith
Pacioretty — Stastny — Tuch
Ryan — Eakin — Perron
Carrier — Bellemare — Reaves
McNabb — Schmidt
E. Karlsson — Theodore
Engelland — Miller
Scratched: Hunt, Lindberg, Nosek
Some things we just can’t change in this reality, so Schmidt is suspended the first 20 games of the season. Tuch, fresh off signing his new contract, misses the first six games with a lower-body injury. Lindberg and Hunt draw into the lineup.
Vegas loses a little defensively without Schmidt, but Karlsson moves to the top pair with McNabb and the two are dynamic together. Theodore, after holding out almost all of camp looking for a new contract, pairs with Engelland. Miller, after signing a four-year extension, works with Hunt on the third pair.
The changes aren’t gamechanging, but Vegas hovers above .500 in the 20 games without Schmidt, starting 11-9-0 with key wins over Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Vancouver. Tuch returns Oct. 24, and Schmidt on Nov. 18. Healthy and not suspended, the Golden Knights go 20-5-2 in their next 27 heading into Jan. 10. After a rough 5-10-1 stretch leading up to the trade deadline, the Golden Knights are reportedly in the mix for the biggest name on the market — Mark Stone.
For the second straight season, Vegas and Ottawa are involved in the biggest blockbuster. With the final hour approaching, the asking price for Stone comes down a bit, but Vegas still pulls away with the best offer.
Golden Knights acquire: Mark Stone
Senators acquire: Oscar Lindberg, Nicolas Hague, 2020 second-round pick
In a corresponding move, Vegas clears more cap space:
Winnipeg Jets acquire: Cody Eakin ($3.85 million)
Golden Knights acquire: Conditional 2020 third-round pick (turns into a second if Winnipeg makes the playoffs in 2020).
The Golden Knights make the declarative choice of Brannstrom over Hague, thus making Vegas the team of Sweden.
A logjam at wing, Vegas creates a need at third-line center. Fortunately, a one-time idea that almost came to fruition in Anaheim works in Vegas’ favor.
Pacioretty — Stastny — Stone
Marchessault — W. Karlsson — Smith
Perron — Ryan — Tuch
Carrier — Bellemare — Reaves
McNabb — Schmidt
Karlsson — Theodore
Engelland — Miller
Scratches: Hunt, Nosek, Valentin Zykov
The Golden Knights go 13-5-1 in their final 19 games and finish 49-29-4; good for second place in the Pacific, one point clear of the Sharks and clinching home-ice advantage for a first-round series against San Jose.
In a contract year, Karlsson scores 60 points in 65 games. Theodore eclipses the 40-point mark for the first time in his career and takes the first step of being an elite defenseman.
To the playoffs we go.
Round 1 - San Jose
Game 1 in Vegas goes as well as it could. Stone notches his first NHL hat trick in a 6-3 win. Fleury records a 28-save shutout in a 5-0 win in Game 2. Pacioretty scores twice to keep the top line buzzing.
San Jose reels off three straight wins to take a 3-2 series lead, all by one goal; Logan Couture scored in double overtime in Game 4 to win 4-3, and Tomas Hertl scored late in the third in Game 5 at T-Mobile Arena for a 3-2 win.
Game 6 goes to double overtime at SAP Center. Marchessault goes off for a tripping penalty, setting up a power play for the Sharks. Fifteen seconds into the man advantage, Brent Burns fans on a shot from the blue line, Stone takes it away and scores a shorthanded breakaway goal for the unthinkable 2-1 win to force a Game 7.
Fleury stops all 35 shots in a 4-0 win. William Karlsson, Pacioretty and Ryan score the first three goals in 50 minutes. Ryan takes a faceoff in the San Jose zone midway through the third period. He wins it clean and is not called for a five-minute major. Marchessault scores the empty-netter for the final.
Round 2 - Colorado
Due to the Avalanche dispatching the top-seeded Calgary Flames in the first round, a more complete Vegas team waits for them in the conference semis.
Colorado’s speed proves to be a problem for Vegas. The Avs’ top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen are a worthy adversary to Pacioretty, Stastny and Stone. But much like Vegas’ run to the Cup Final the year before, goaltending is the key. Off two shutouts in Round 1, Fleury outduels Philipp Grubauer in an entertaining six-game series.
Stone continues his dominance with five goals in the six-game series, giving him 10 through two rounds. Erik Karlsson has 14 points through two rounds.
Next, the Blues.
Round 3 - St. Louis
When we think back on Year 2, this is one of the bigger ‘what ifs’ outside of Joe Pavelski’s head hitting the ice. The Blues were a buzzsaw-and-a-half humming along at the right time. Jordan Binnington was at top-five caliber from January on; they were playing elite defensive hockey.
Could the Golden Knights as we knew them beat St. Louis in a seven-game series? Likely not.
But with this Golden Knights team — adding Stone, Pacioretty and Stastny, re-signing Perron and adding Karlsson from the year prior — and with home-ice advantage, would it have changed anything?
The Blues beat the Sharks in six games without home-ice advantage, and ended up winning the Stanley Cup in Boston, in a seventh game. Perron played an important role in St. Louis’ Cup run with 16 points in 26 games. Take that away and put him on Vegas with a line of Ryan and Tuch, that third line becomes an X-factor that St. Louis might not be able to match up with.
For the winner ... that’s where we’ll end it. We’ve gone thousands of words too many and I’ll let you decide.
The future of this team for Year 3 would be more convoluted than anticipated. Does Karlsson re-sign with Vegas? If he does, who goes in corresponding deals to clear cap space? With a Stanley Cup, maybe two, in the bag, does Gerard Gallant even get fired? Does Vegas become a dynasty?
It’s weird to think that Erik Karlsson becomes the key to the multiverse of the NHL. Imagining what Vegas does in the two years with him rather than be traded to San Jose could have flipped the script completely. The Golden Knights could have very well won the Stanley Cup in Year 1 with a superstar skater at the helm. It’s just like adding Stone and Pacioretty — that jolt of adding superstar-caliber players to a team that made the Final the year prior was the win-now moves George McPhee felt were necessary.
If Karlsson could’ve provided that jolt in Year 1, one could only imagine.
But alas, much like most of sports history, we ask, “What if?”